Why the word “Plastic” in Plastic Surgery?

Reason for this entry

I frequently get asked this question about what is plastic surgery in our Modesto, CA surgery practice.  I live in the world of surgery and of course it’s obvious to me the explanation, but I’ve just started to realize that the word “plastic” has some different meanings to those outside of the plastic surgery field.

Dr. Tammy Wu, Board Certified Plastic Surgeon, Modesto, CA

Dr. Tammy Wu, Board Certified Plastic Surgeon, Modesto, CA

The American Board of Plastic Surgery Definition of Plastic Surgery

The ABPS defines plastic surgery to be a field that deals with the reconstruction, repair, or replacement of physical defects of form or function involving the skin, muscles, face/head, hand, extremities, breast, trunk, external genitalia or cosmetic enhancement of these areas of the body.

  • The plastic surgeon’s skills in making reconstructive decisions and surgeries are essential fundamentals for cosmetic surgery.
  • The plastic surgeon uses cosmetic surgical principles to improve overall appearance

There are two main subsets of Plastic Surgery

  1. Reconstructive Plastic Surgery – for cancer, birth defects, deviations from “accepted standards, to improve/normalize function of a part of the body.
  2. Cosmetic Plastic Surgery – aesthetic surgery in the absence of actual deformity or trauma.

How about the terms “Cosmetic Surgeon” vs. “Plastic Surgeon”

  • This has been a recent eye opener for me.   I have originally been somewhat opposed to the term cosmetic surgeon, because it perhaps denotes lesser training than a plastic surgeon in my own world.
  • However, I’m starting to understand that some people think the term “plastic” means “fake” like plastic is a form of fake glass.  Or a plastic form of something else like wood or leather, etc.
  • Or perhaps some even think in addition to “fake”, plastic could mean “superficial”.
  • Or to some plastic surgery could mean the surgical insertion of plastic/artificial grafts into the body.
  • Or it looks so smooth it looks like plastic.


  • Gosh, I’ve really never actually thought of it that way, because I’ve been in my own world where Plastic Surgery in my mind was placed so highly up on a pedestal, because this is what my wife (Dr. Tammy Wu) did, and she was board certified in Plastic Surgery.  So the term “cosmetic” never got used too much.
  • Let me explain my own thought process:  The term “plastic” in plastic surgery got derived from the Greek word plastikos which means “moldable” – so the body is plastic – meaning able to be molded and shaped.
  • Sometimes “cosmetic” got used by surgeons who practice aesthetic surgery who weren’t board certified by the ABPS (American Board of Plastic Surgery).  So yet another reason why I’ve never liked using the word “cosmetic”
  • But I like to get educated and I like to know what others think.  I’d like to thank those that have told me that “cosmetic” or “aethetic” are more pleasing terms to them than “plastic.” – I only really thought of “plastic” before as “plasticity” – the ability to reshape, remold, re-influence.  Not as bottles of plastic… ah ha, I get it now.  But how unfortunate, I say.

Discussion with Dr. Tammy Wu, Plastic Surgeon

Dr. Wu couldn’t even understand the quote from Joan Rivers,

“I’ve had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware.”

I let her think about it for a whole day, and she still couldn’t figure it out.  I told her that the “plastic” that Joan Rivers is referring to is the plastic material.  So, I think this is educational for us, that we need to try to understand the rest of the world when it comes to perhaps some confusion over what is “plastic” surgery.

So I’ll give it a try and use the word Cosmetic Surgery:

  • Visit our Modesto Cosmetic Surgery website’s home page
  • We specialize in Cosmetic Surgery of the face, breasts, tummy, legs, and veins.